"The Goliad Survivors"
The Goliad Executions- by Norman Price
The Texans were awakened and told that they would be marching to the gulf coast to be put onto ships bound for New Orleans. But as the Texian soldiers were moved out in front of the fort, they were divided into three groups of around 150 men each, and marched out in three different directions, being north, south, and west. At approximately one half mile away from the fort, each group was ordered to halt, and within moments, they were shot. Less than 30 men were able to escape.
This is a survivor's story.
As a foggy daylight broke on the morning of March 27th, which was Palm Sunday, there was somewhere around 425 and 445 captured Texan Soldiers being held at the Presidio La Bahia Mission near Goliad after surrendering to the Mexican army at Coleto Creek. Mexican General Urrea wrote to Santa Anna asking for clemency for the Texians, but Santa Anna repeatedly ordered the General to comply with a new law that any prisoners taken in combat were to be considered pirates and executed. Santa Anna also sent this order to Urrea’s second in command, Colonel Jose Portilla, who was now in charge at the Presidio, demanding that the order be carried out.
Portilla decided it was his duty to comply, despite receiving a countermanding order from Urrea later that same day.
Dillard Cooper was one of Captain John Shackelford’s Alabama Red Rovers, known so because of their red jeans. Two months earlier, they had come to help the Texas army under James Fannin. This morning, Cooper was in the group that was being marched south on the San Patricio Road, where they were stopped near a brush fence.
The commanding officer came up to the head of the line and asked who understood Spanish. As some of the Mexican guards began cocking their musket locks, it quickly dawned on the men that they were about to be butchered. Nobody answered. He then ordered them to turn their backs to the guards, but nobody obeyed. The officer stepped up to the man at the head of the column, took him by the shoulders, and forcibly turned him around.
Cries for mercy began erupting from some of the men. To Cooper’s right was Wilson Simpson, and to his left, Robert Fenner, who called out, "Don't take on so boys; if we have to die, let's die like brave men." Just as Dillard turned and looked over to Fenner, a bright flash and explosion of a musket went off and he immediately went face down on the ground. Fenner was immediately killed and fell on top of him.
The south massacre site along the old San Patricio Road
Apparently, neither Cooper or Simpson were hit, and Simpson immediately jumped up and began running. A thick cloud of gunpowder smoke temporarily concealed them from visibility, and these few precious seconds allowed Cooper to push himself up and out from under Fenner’s body, and he quickly followed in the direction Simpson had taken off. They both dashed to an opening in the brush fence and pushed their way through. To the west, there was an open prairie with trees on the other side, so they began running in that direction as fast as they could.
After firing into the Texans, the Mexican soldiers moved in to bayonet any men that were missed or wounded. Some soldiers could now see the men fleeing and began chasing them, but were unable to outpace them. It was a long run for all of them across the prairie, and Cooper slowed to a walk just as they were about to reach the trees. The soldiers stopped and fired at them, but their bullets whistled over their heads as they ducked and ran into the trees.
The tree line that Cooper and Simpson were running for
They moved north through the trees until they reached the river, stopping in the brush along the bank to rest and put a plan together. Suddenly, they heard movement above the bank of someone approaching, and fearing that it was Mexican soldiers, Dillard turned and jumped into the river. Simpson frantically ran a few yards along the bank before choosing to jump into the river as well. Dillard could now see that the approaching noise was coming from two of their fellow soldiers that had also been able to escape the initial shooting. They were Zachariah Brooks, and Isaac Hamilton. Each of Hamilton's thighs had a bad wound, one made by a gunshot and another by a bayonet. Brooks was severely wounded as well, but he was able to walk and was helping Hamilton along. Although startled themselves when Dillard hit the water, upon realizing who it was, they too slid down the bank and jumped into the river. Together they swam to the opposite bank and along with the current taking them downriver until they reached a steep bluffed bank with thick brush along it. Their bodies exhausted and nerves on end, they climbed out of the river and hid in the brush and decided not to leave there.
The Mexican soldiers were still looking for them, and Hamilton’s leg wounds had become so painful, there was no way he could walk. By this time, it was not yet 9:00 am.
They hid at the bluff all day, and then until well after dark. Dillard estimated that it would have been around 10 o'clock that night when they moved out of the bushes. Dillard and Simpson carried Hamilton between them as they climbed out from the bluff cautiously and slowly, moving along the north side of the river bank. After passing opposite the fort safely, they reached a spring, where they stopped for a rest. The night became foggy, and the group started out again. Dillard and Simpson still carried Hamilton between them as they moved through the brush. They continued moving this way for a few hours until they came upon another spring and paused again to rest. Dillard was the first to realize that they were at the same spring that they had been at earlier. They had walked in a circle during the night. They knew they couldn’t move across country in the daylight, since they would be easily seen by the Mexican soldiers. As dawn began to break, they made their way to a bank covered in brush on the edge of the next prairie and decided to wait the day out there.
Around 9 o'clock that morning, they heard the heavy tramp of Mexican soldiers on the march, and soon, a detachment passed within a stone's throw of where the four men were hiding. They were glad that they’d decided to stay where they were, since they would have certainly been caught had they tried to cross that prairie. They remained in this hiding place the rest of the day, and resumed their journey after dark, still carrying their wounded companion. After reaching another pond, they noticed a small group of Mexican soldiers approaching. Without much time or cover to hide from the soldiers, they quickly slipped themselves down into the water and hid under a piece of brush with only their heads out of the water, and were once again able to avoid detection by the army.
They continued moving east, from prairie to tree line, for another eight days. It was overcast and raining off and on every day, so it was difficult to get their bearings without the sun.
On the morning of the ninth day, they came upon a house. Finding it abandoned, they went in, and were excited to find some corn, chickens in the back, and eggs lying in nests around the yard. After getting some much-needed food into them, they rested in the house. Simpson’s feet were raw and bleeding and he took off his shoes to rest and clean his feet. He said, "Boys, we would be in a tight place if the Mexicans were to come up on us now." Moments later, while putting one of his shoes back on, he heard something that made him stand up and look out the window. To his horror, there was the Mexican army not more than a mile and a half off, and fifteen to twenty horsemen coming at full speed towards the house. They scooped up Hamilton and bolted out of the back door and ran for the trees. It all happened so fast that Simpson left his other shoe behind.
They climbed into the timber and hid between the logs of two fallen trees, the tops of which were thick with leaves and moss and had fallen together and formed an almost impenetrable screen above and around them. They had scarcely hidden from view when the Mexicans came swarming in around the house. They could hear them all throughout the day and through the night, but they stayed hidden within the tree limbs. The next morning, just before daylight, the noise of the Mexicans ceased. Simpson didn’t want to leave without his shoe, so he asked Dillard to go with him to get it. They crawled out enough to see if it was clear, which it was. They quickly ran to the house and found the shoe. They also grabbed a couple of ears of corn and a bottle of water before racing back out to the trees. After quenching some of their thirst and hunger, they started to make their way out of their hiding spot to go back for more when suddenly they heard horse’s hooves beating the ground, and once again, Mexican soldiers were in every direction. Four Mexicans rode up to the edge of the tree limbs, passing within only a few feet of where they were lying with their faces to the ground. Their muddy clothes and condition helped them blend in with the natural elements. At one point, a soldier leaned down from his saddle and looked directly into where they were hiding, but didn’t notice them.
Dillard said later that he thought they could have heard them, for the throbbing of his own heart seemed to raise him off the ground. He said he felt more frightened at that moment than he ever had before. At the time of the massacre, everything had happened so suddenly that his nerves had no time to become unstrung as they were now hiding under those tree limbs.
The Mexicans continued passing right by them throughout the day, and a guard was placed near their location the following night. They must have had some idea of them being Fannin's men, as they left a detachment to search for them while the main army moved on.
About 10 o'clock that night, the men decided that they had to leave, as the Mexicans knew they were there and would surely discover them the next day. The men asked Dillard to lead them, and after looking things over, he told them his plan. They would have to crawl through the trees, across a short piece of prairie, and cross the road near where the Mexicans were posted. They had to be careful to remove every leaf and stick in their path, and to hold their feet up, only crawling on their hands and knees, as any noise could give them away.
Hamilton's wounds were so painful that he could barely move, and it took them about two hours to crawl 200 yards. When they finally reached the road, they could see the Mexicans placed along the road. The moon was shining through breaks in the clouds, but had sunk towards the west, which threw the shadow of a large tree limb across the road. Their muddy clothes again helped to conceal them as they slowly crawled across in the shadow. Once far enough away, everyone but Hamilton could stand up and walk again. His wounds by this time had become so painful that he could barely withstand being carried. They didn’t travel very far that night, and had to stop and hide in another thicket near a pond.
Although Brooks had some minor wounds, he hadn't helped carry Hamilton at all during their journey. But now, he began discreetly telling Dillard that they should consider leaving Hamilton behind because he was slowing them down. Dillard understood their progress was being slowed, but indignantly refused the idea.
On the tenth day out, Brooks and Simpson took the bottle and went for water at a nearby pond. As they were returning, Brooks was now attempting to convince Simpson that they should leave Hamilton, explaining that if they were just able to start moving quicker, they may have a good chance of escaping. Brooks didn’t realize how close they were to where Hamilton and Dillard were sitting, and both clearly overheard Brooks telling Simpson that Hamilton's wounds were so bad now that he would probably die anyway, and it was their duty to leave him.
Hamilton didn’t say a word to them when they came in, but sat with his face buried in his hands for a long time. Eventually, he looked up and said, "Boys, Brooks has told you the truth. I cannot travel any further, and if you stay with me, all will be killed. Go and leave me, boys. If I have rest I may recover, and if I ever should get off safe, you shall hear from me again."
Although Dillard and Simpson argued against it, Hamilton was finally able to convince them all of the truth as he saw it, and they agreed that they would continue on without him. All were shedding tears as they told Hamilton goodbye. Dillard only made it a short distance before he said, ”My resolution failed me, and I could not find it in my heart to leave him.” He went back to Hamilton and told him that he’d stay with him and do whatever he could for them both. Hamilton wouldn’t have it, and insisted that Dillard go with the others. He finally agreed, and caught up to the other men a brief time later.
The day was dark and raining hard, and the men thought they would be safe in traveling during daylight, but they only got halfway through the next prairie when the weather cleared up, and they could see the whole Mexican army camped near Texana, about two miles off. They cautiously kept moving and succeeded in reaching some trees near a river, where they stopped for the night. After starting out early the next morning, they came across a wide trampled road, and concluded that it had been made by the refugees in their retreat, which they learned later was the “Runaway Scrape.”
On the twelfth day, they reached the Colorado River at Mercer's crossing. While resting on the bank before attempting to swim across, a dog on the opposite side began to bark at them. For the first time since the awful day of the massacre, a smile spread over their faces, and their “...souls thrilled with joy at the familiar sound." They looked at each other, and then burst out laughing. They were good swimmers, but in their weakened state, decided to cross with all three of them hanging onto a long dry tree trunk. After crossing to freedom, they found more Texian refugees who helped them with food and rest while they continued moving east towards the Sabine River and the safety of the United States. After recuperating and learning where the Texian army was heading, they were able to get some horses and attempted to intercept them. When they did finally reach San Jacinto, the celebration was still ongoing after the battle, which had already been fought and won.
More than a year passed before Dillard heard anything of Hamilton. He HAD survived, but just barely.
He had remained at the same location where they had left him for nine days, sometimes lying in the pond of water, which helped relieve the pain of his wounds. When he felt he could walk, he chose to head towards Texana, and succeeded in doing so. The town was deserted, but he found some food. The next morning, he took a skiff, and made his way down to Dimmitt's landing. Just as he reached the bank, a Mexican soldier stepped out and took him prisoner. Soon, other soldiers came in, and they tied Hamilton onto a mule and headed for their camp. He fainted several times on the way from the pain of his leg wounds. Whenever this happened, they would untie him, lay him on the ground, and throw water into his face until he revived. There was one Mexican who was nice to him and helped him whenever he could. One morning, this Mexican told him that if he wanted to live another day, he must escape, as he had learned that he and two other prisoners were going to be shot the next morning. It’s possible that the Mexicans may have received word that they had lost at San Jacinto. With the help of this Mexican, Hamilton not only escaped himself, but was able to get the two other prisoners out successfully as well. They were all later found by Texians who helped them.
Story paraphrased and condensed from Dillard Cooper's Remembrances of the Fannin Massacre
From Rangers and Pioneers of Texas by A.J. Sowell 1884 as reprinted from the American Sketch Book 1881.
Goliad Massacre Map- From “Ehrenberg: Goliad Survivor-Old West Explorer,” Texas Heritage Press, Dallas.